Saturday, December 26, 2009

My nephew Joshua turns 18 next March.  Joshua has been taller than me ever since he was 15, and his voice broke back when he was 13 or so, he got his driving licence ages ago, last year he finished a course in media at TAFE and right now Joshua is trying to pick up some work as a stand-up comic.  I’m really very proud of Josh, he’s turning into a thoughtful young man full of creativity and character.  But when he’s not around, in my mind’s eye he goes back to being the little boy with a big smile who when his mum brought him to visit us used to kick his football over the fence deliberately so I would have to go out and spend some time helping him find it.  Alison remembers Josh from much earlier than that, and reminds him from time to time that she used to change his nappies.  Seems that part of the job of growing up is to persuade the people who love you that it’s OK for them to let you.

In our readings this morning we tune in on two young men – who at the age of 12 or so, beginning to go through puberty and taking their places in the religious life of their people, Samuel and Jesus were becoming.  Yes, it’s only two days ago we celebrated Jesus’ birth, and the church calendar has moved us on so quickly you might find yourself wondering whether the season of Christmas is over.  Can’t we hold on to the baby in the manger at least till we get the Christmas trees down?  Yet both Samuel and Jesus, we are told, are growing in stature and growing in human and divine favour, beginning to define their own identity and distancing themselves in appropriate adolescent fashion from both their parents’ expectations and ours.

Stature is about size, but not just physical size.  Stature is not just what really big statues have, though I read once that the Victorian practice of making important queens and generals invariably about eight feet tall when cast in bronze was a deliberate way of also making them look like people of vision, people with an expansive outlook, people who saw horizons too distant for the rest of us, in short, men and women of stature.  Size, in this sense, is also an important theological value – largeness of spirit, generosity of outlook is a measure of how much of the world you can embrace in all its diversity and contradiction without losing your own personal centre.  People of stature see things in bigger categories, look beyond their own interests to the interests of others, look beyond parochial or factional interests to the good of the whole – men and women of stature inspire and challenge us even as they all too often annoy the heck out of us.

And at Christmas – even in spite of the secular virtues of merry-making and over-consumption and loss of inhibition that push the story of the birth of Jesus firmly to one side – despite ourselves, and just for an instant, we grow in stature.  Just for a moment, like Ebenezer Scrooge, our souls expand and we see beauty in unlikely places.  We catch a glimpse of God’s presence in otherwise ordinary and grumpy family members and co-workers, and allow ourselves to rejoice in acts of giving and to fantasise about peace on earth.  Unfortunately feeling of expansiveness all too often is as artificial as the tinsel and the fake snow, and before we can say ‘Boxing Day Sale’ the busyness of life has pushed us back into the familiar cycle of competiveness and superficiality.  What might it mean to hold on to the Christmas moment of heightened perceptions and widened horizons, to resist the silly season pull back into mental laziness and self-interest, and to practice growing in stature?

Actually, psalm 148 is not a bad place to start for a universe-wide vision of creation oriented towards God, the wonder of stars and planets spinning in orbits of praise, atoms, molecules and living cells vibrating in harmony with the dynamic order of the universe.  The spiritual perspective that we call stature is grounded in the religious virtue of amazement at what is – beneath the pessimism, the loss of faith in human goodness and the newspapers’ list of daily atrocities that defeat our spiritual buoyancy, we need to tune our perceptions and our spirits back into the divine order that guides not only the stars but also our own lives, to pay attention to the slow rhythms of tides and seasons and living things and to know that we ourselves are at home with all this in God’s loving purposes.  The perspective of psalm 148 is the spiritual equivalent of the culinary movement called ‘slow cooking’ – slowing down in order to notice what’s going on, the small and incremental movements of things, the significance and beauty of what in our busyness we too often pass over as the incidental background noise of our lives.

Jesus’ experience in the Temple as a 12-year-old, poised on the edge of autonomy and self-understanding, provides a good model for our own spiritual growth.  The story speaks to us of priorities, of recognising our own need to reflect and to question our faith and its role in guiding our lives.  The child Jesus forgets his parents and the rules of his household because he is responding to what he already feels as a deeper need to share in the wisdom of his tradition of faith.  Missing in action for three days that remind us of the three days he will be lost in the sleep of death, Jesus here reminds us that we don’t grow without time apart for refreshment and challenge.  We grow in wisdom and stature by taking the time to intentionally study and wrestle with the scriptures, to explore and discuss new ideas about the world and about God, to pray, to meditate and to serve others.  As our reading from Colossians counsels us, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’.  A stagnant faith is a faith that’s grown cold, that’s turned into lifeless habit.  A faith that is no longer open to learning and sharing has already started to contract.  A faith that’s stretched and examined and reflected on is a faith that grows strong and resilient.

The vocation of being Christian is the call to be large of soul, to focus on the big picture of who we are and who others are.  As the writer of Colossians puts it, to “Clothe yourselves with compassion . . . clothe yourselves with love.”  Here, the vocation of spirituality is integrated with the vocation of living in loving relation, we are reminded that Christian spirituality is not self-centred but other-centred.  And we are pointed back to the cosmic perspective of psalm 148, reminded that we are interconnected, that we are part of one another.

Finally, says Colossians, “let the peace of Christ dwell in your hearts.” Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead defined peace as the expansion of our usual self-centred perspective to include the well-being of others and the planet itself.  Pity the delegates at Copenhagen didn’t share this definition.  In the peace that passes understanding, Whitehead suggested, by incorporating the whole universe in our understanding of who we are and what ultimately matters, we participate in eternity. Above all, the vocation of being Christian is the call to think big, to take a wider perspective than the society we live in challenges us to do, to keep growing rather than to start shrinking.  It’s a vastly different sort of expansiveness than the expansiveness of overindulgence into which, sadly, I fear I may have slipped over the past couple of days, an elasticity not of the waistline but of the mind and soul, and one that suggests a New Year’s resolution worth keeping. 

This year, don’t let the Grinch of cynicism and self-centredness steal Christmas.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve/Day

I saw an angel the other night.  Now interestingly enough, in the Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, the only two books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ birth, there’s no mention of many of the characters that we take for granted, like the donkey that Mary rode all the way to Bethlehem, or the innkeeper that grumpily told them they could sleep in the stable or the cattle they shared it with.  The Bible stories don’t even tell us anything about the background of the main characters, we don’t know for example anything about Mary’s family even though popular imagination decided right back in the second century that her mum was called Anna and her dad was Joachim, and people invented all sorts of stories about how poor Anna reacted to Mary’s good news.  The Bible stories themselves give us just the bare bones of the story and all through history people have used their imaginations to fill in the blanks, and I suppose that’s fair enough because when you think about it what we really want to ask about this story is what it’s got to do with us.

But you’ll want to know about this angel I saw.  Because the one thing that both Luke and Matthew do give us in their stories of Jesus’ birth is angels, and the angels are there at every turn of the story to tell people what it means and what it’s got to do with them, and most of all to tell people not to be afraid because this is good news.  Which I always thought was a bit crazy since nobody would have been afraid in the first place if it hadn’t have been for the angels suddenly appearing from nowhere in a blaze of light to tell them not to be.

Actually, forget all the cute popular depictions of angels, fluffy white wings and angelic expressions.  In the Old Testament, where they take this sort of thing fairly seriously, in the book of the prophet Ezekiel angels are described as being like flying serpents with six wings.  When Ezekiel claps eyes on one he assumes quite reasonably that he’s going to die.  Then in other parts of the Old Testament, angels just look like regular human beings.  For example in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, there’s the story of Abraham who entertains three mystery dinner guests only to discover later that they had been messengers of God, which is basically what the Greek word, angelos, means.  In the New Testament, in the letter to the Hebrews, we’re warned, be kind to strangers because you never know if they’re going to turn out to be God’s angels. 

So angels are one of the constants of the story, and one reason for that, I guess, is that they are a sort of narrative voice, like the character in a kids’ pantomime who every now and then turns and addresses the audience directly. ‘Psst!  You wanna know what it all means?  I’ll tell you what it means …’  We get the general amazement of it, that the God who made the whole universe, all 14 billion light years in every direction of it, the Spirit that underlies matter and energy and coaxes the inanimate building blocks of creation into more and more complex molecules, amino acids, self-replicating cells and after billions of years, reflective and creative organisms who know deep down that the meaning of their existence is love - that after all that, God chooses to share our physical existence.  We get the whiz-bang ‘wow!’ of it, we get the paradox of it and we get that it’s not a problem to be solved, or a riddle to be explained or a doctrine to be expounded, but a mystery to be entered into and before which the appropriate thing is to be silent. 

But angels are essential or else the mystery just becomes remote and opaque instead of being, as the deepest mysteries are meant to be, marvellous and personal and translucent.  The angel says to us, ‘this matters – to you.  And the reason that every year it stirs something so deep inside you that you follow it here in the middle of the night is because deep down you know that it changes something and that the universe pivots on it.’  Partly it’s because we know that this most ordinary of human mysteries is anything but - a young woman having a baby in circumstances that are difficult if not unfortunately that uncommon.  And in the story of this birth we remember our own stories, and the stories of those we love - the waters breaking right at the most inopportune time, the frantic search for the car keys, the first drawing of a breath and the cry that tears your heart in two with helpless love.  At this simple and direct level, tonight’s story reminds us that the deepest human experiences, the ones that define us and hold us together, the most spiritual human experiences involve shared flesh and blood.  That the shortest line between earth and heaven now runs through the centre of the human heart.  What moves us to recognise our own humanity is allowing ourselves to recognise and respond to the basic human needs of another.

So why angels, if it’s that simple?  Maybe it’s because we human beings are too tricky, we distrust the blindingly obvious.  We have to embroider, to cover it up with fancy logic and theology and so we forget that if the birth of Jesus is a message of love from God to the world then it’s first and foremost a message that we don’t have to be rocket scientists to actually understand, a message that speaks for itself, and because it speaks for itself we actually need to have the angels popping out in a pyrotechnic blaze and say to us, ‘this is it! This is what is actually important!’.

So, as I said, I saw an angel.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t realise he was an angel, he was probably just doing his best to build a bridge of understanding within our local community.   It was on Sunday evening at the City of Canning Carols by Candlelight, and to tell the truth our parish children looked more like angels with their pretty dresses and wings, and they acted the story of Jesus’ birth with a seriousness that showed they knew they were representing a divine mystery.  And then when we had all sung ourselves hoarse and burned our fingers with candle wax - that was when I saw the angel.  This angel was Imam Burhan, of the Turkish mosque on Welshpool Road, and the City of Canning had asked him to tell us why the birth of Jesus mattered.

I don’t know how well Imam Burhan knows the story of Jesus in the Gospel of John, but I was reminded when he spoke that in John’s Gospel it says that when God’s Word takes on human flesh and blood and lives among us, that turns on the lights for all human beings, everywhere.  And Imam Burhan said that the birth of Jesus mattered because it was about hope.  Imam Burhan told us what hope means in a world where competitiveness and suspicion divide us, where human beings want to do good but end up locked into patterns of distrust, what hope means in a world where some people have more than they need while others die for the basic necessities, what hope means in a world where we know that the planet we depend on needs us to care for it but we can’t trust each other enough to take the first step.  He reminded us that human beings can’t live without hope, and he told us that the birth of Jesus is the hope of God’s presence with us that that we most especially need when we’ve lost our bearings and are looking for pathways toward an uncertain future.

And 1500 people fell silent while the angel told us about the hope that the birth of Jesus gives us.  And then, because actually I left out the most important thing about angels, they don’t just tell us the message, in a mysterious way they are the message – then the angel wanted to have his photo taken with me, and so we stood there together, my friend Selim and I, Muslim and Christian, with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the astronomers – and that, it seemed to me, was what it was all about.



Saturday, December 19, 2009

Advent 4C

A not-so-young woman bailed me up the other day and wanted to know what sort of church we ran here.  'Are you traditional or modern?' she wanted to know.  I assured her that we did our best to be both of those things, and remarked that, after all, even our very oldest parishioners were living in the 21st century.  Some of our youngest have never been alive in any other one.  'Yes', she said, not very satisfied, 'but do you have women priests?'  'Oh', I had to confess, 'I'm afraid not.  Just me.  Maybe next time?'  'Because', she explained to me, as if to somebody not very bright, 'there's nothing about that in the Bible, you know.  That's why I had to leave the Church.  I wouldn't feel right about a woman telling me what God thought about things'.

I thought at the time, though I didn't dare say it, that perhaps she had never come across the heroine of today's Gospel story, Mary of Nazareth.  Here, it seems to me, we have the irreverent heart of God's cosmic joke that we call the Incarnation - not one lady prophet but two.  Mary, the pregnant teenager with a wild tale of angels and a radical reinterpretation of God's agenda, not just thumbing her nose at all the social niceties but setting off on a gruelling and dangerous cross-country trip to tell the world about it - and Elizabeth, much too old to decently have babies.  Two scandalous women celebrating the fertility of their bodies, rejoicing in the messy everyday realities of missed periods and morning sickness, daring to exercise the priestly prerogative of pronouncing peace and blessings on one another and the world in general while the actual, licensed and official priest, Zechariah, sits dumbfounded and speechless in the kitchen. 

Actually, for about a thousand years beginning sometime in the fifth century, the tradition of the Church included a festival celebrated on the first of January that you don't hear much about nowadays.  Not Christmas, a more recent addition to the Church calendar, not Epiphany, the early Church's festival of light that celebrated the Incarnation of Christ, but the subversive, chaotic Festival of Fools.  If you've never even heard of the Festival of Fools, that's because it was eventually stamped out in Europe by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.  The Feast of Fools persisted for over a thousand years, sometimes officially tolerated, sometimes in secret, illicitly, always to the dismay of the bishops and cardinals and hide-bound sticklers for position and status who one day of the year came in for a good razzing.  On the Feast of Fools everything was turned upside down in a 24 hour revolution - children presided as bishops, masters served their slaves.  In the only surviving liturgical manuscript of the Feast of Fools, dating from 12th century France, the pretend bishop served until the evening office of vespers when, during the recitation of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, at the words: 'the mighty have been cast down from their thrones', the symbols of office were taken back by their rightful licensed owners.

So, what's this got to do with Mary?  Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Beginning with the prophet Micah, today we start to hear the note of surprise and delight.  The entrance for God into our world is amongst the small ones, the least and the lowliest of the world, the ones who don't count.  God loves to surprise, to hide in places we don't think of looking, to turn our stuffy preconceptions upside down, the holiest of holies turns out not to be in the inner sanctum of the Temple but in Bethlehem, a shabby little farm village 'too small to be counted among the clans of Judah'.  Bethlehem is like Mary, too insignificant to be noticed, a woman in a society where only men had legal or religious standing, barely out of childhood in a society where teenagers weren't sassy or opinionated or armed to the teeth with mobile phones and iPods but just invisible and unimportant mouths to feed.

The first thing to remember as the story begins is that first and foremost it's about God, about God's way of being present in human history - and only after that does it also become a story about Mary or Elizabeth or the bewildered Zechariah or about any of us.  God keeps interfering in history through his promises and his prophets.  That's where the modern wishy-washy brand of Christianity that believes in a non-interventionist God is way wide of the mark.  God is messy, God can't resist breaking into the world that human selfishness and competitiveness have spoiled, God breaks in again and again through the women and men who speak God's words and bring God's promises to fulfilment.  God is always intent on resetting creation back to its original purpose, bringing it to the fullness it was designed for.  And God is interested first and foremost in the insignificant, the poor, the merciful, the hungry, those who demand justice and peace. Why?  Because that's the pivot-point of human history, that's where human yearning for flourishing and wholeness is concentrated.  Right there in the credibility gap between human need and political reality, that's the ecological niche where God gets a foothold. 

Today's Gospel reading gives us two episodes - the story of the Annunciation, the turning point of human history at which an angel, holding his breath, places the divine plan for the completion of creation itself in the hands of a Jewish peasant girl, who like Molly Bloom on the very last line of the last page of James Joyce's wild and wonderful story, 'Ulysses', says in no uncertain terms 'Yes.  And then he asked me would I? and yes, and his heart was going like mad, and yes, I said, yes, I will - yes!' - and the story of the Visitation, in which Mary, full of the Spirit and with child, tumbles over herself in her haste to tell the good news to her aged and equally insignificant cousin, the inexplicably pregnant Elizabeth.  We don't know why that's where Mary needed to go, what their relationship was, whether Mary could even have known that Elizabeth was also miraculously pregnant, but it tells us something about this girl - in a society where unexplained pregnancy out of marriage meant at best being condemned to a life on the fringes of society, at worst the legal penalty of stoning, Mary sets off on a journey across country, the first missionary Christian journey of all time as within her body a cluster of cells begins to build a bridge between God and creation.  She enters Elizabeth's house and utters the first word she speaks in the Bible to any human being: 'Shalom'. [1] A word that - even today - means peace and wholeness, flourishing and welcome and delight.  It's the same greeting that the risen Jesus will speak to his disciples after the resurrection, when he enters the room where they are locked in fear.  Both Mary and Jesus echo the words of the prophet Micah who in today's reading promises that the child shall be shalom.  It is the word that the Jewish people believe God speaks to create the universe, the 'yes' of God to human life, God's 'yes, I said, yes, I will, yes'.

Elizabeth breaks into prophecy, reacting with a joy to a greeting that affects her physically and is felt by the child who jumps inside her.  Right here we are in touch with the deepest mystery of human existence, the sacramentality of pregnancy and the spirituality of intuition that leaps from flesh to flesh.  As men we maybe get this, but only just, by reminding ourselves of the deep physical relationships that create and recreate us.  Mary and Elizabeth speak for women whose direct experience of the physicality of spiritual experience is so often suppressed, and for the young and the old marginalised by powerlessness and vulnerability.

This beginning is frighteningly fragile, like so many of the important beginnings in our own lives.  So much can happen to distort and disfigure them, to shade them with doubt.  Here the beginning of God in our own life is as fragile but as powerful as a child growing inside a woman's body, requiring our attention and our love, demanding all of our resources and all of our courage but promising that nothing will ever be the same again.  This is how God creeps into human history, through the insignificant experiences of unimportant people, the ones whose experiences put them on the edge of respectability, perhaps the ones who hesitate to come through the door of our church for fear they won't be accepted.  Elizabeth's question to Mary is also a question for us: 'who are we that that the mother of our Lord should come to us?  Who are we that the Word of God should come to us in the presence or the voice of a pregnant teenager, or a mentally ill or a homeless person?'

The encounter of Mary and Elizabeth poses us some awkward questions.  Who are we listening to?  Are we listening at all?  On whose voice do we hear God's promise of peace?  Whose voices do we screen out?  Do our own voices carry echoes of the Spirit, of joy and prophecy?  Who is listening to us?  Is there room inside us for the unborn promises of God to take over some of the physical space of our own lives?  Do we even believe it's still possible for us to carry the child of God within us, or have we lapsed into a pragmatic atheism?  Every year, the story of the Incarnation tells us that God is here and that the kingdom of God has been here all along in the lives of men and women who call out from us God's promises of welcome and hospitality: the old, the young, the poor and the useless, the one who grieves the child she can't have and the one who grieves the child she has lost.  The one who comes into your life and hopes that you will have the priestly word of blessing and peace.

Are we ready?


[1] In the Greek New Testament Mary's greeting is contained in the word, aspásomai, a traditional formula of greeting that means 'Peace be with you'.  In John 20.21, Jesus says to his disciples, eirḗnē, which means 'peace'.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Advent 3C

In the church of my childhood, the Methodist Church back in the early 60s, fire and brimstone preaching was all the go.  Mind you as a little boy, it wasn’t so much what the preacher-man said that registered, it was how he said it.  Now I have to say my old Dad, whose sermons were my normal Sunday fare, was pretty mild-mannered in his approach - but I do have some spectacular memories of sitting through some proper tub-thumping preaching when we visited somewhere else.  I remember one Sunday honestly wondering why the minister was so angry.  God wasn’t very impressed with any of us, was the best interpretation I could put on it.  At worst, it appeared God was so personally offended by absolutely everything I had ever done, and especially the fact that I wasn’t sufficiently sorry about it, that it was as much as the minister could do to convince God not to zap me on the spot.  I remember furtively looking around at the faces of the grown-ups in the congregation, wondering why they kept coming week after week for such a right proper telling off.  I’m not sure when I first started to hear the message that God loved me to bits, but it certainly wasn’t that morning.

Well, but what’s a preacher to do?  Here we are, a week and a half before Christmas, the festive season is cranking up all around us, we’re already planning Christmas lunch, dusting off the Christmas tree decorations and singing carols in the shower – then we get to church and get a right proper telling off from John the Baptist, the scary cousin (or possibly early mentor) of Jesus.  ‘You lot’, John assures the crowds who walk a day’s journey from Jerusalem out into the desert to hear him – and by extension, us too – ‘what a bunch of poisonous snakes you lot are’.  I think even the monstrous preacher of my childhood memories would have baulked at calling his congregation a brood of vipers.  But that’s what John calls them and for some reason, according both to the Bible and to the 1st century historian Josephus, John is wildly popular. 

Zephaniah, one of the grumpiest of the Old Testament prophets writing about six centuries before Christ and maybe 30 years or so before the Babylonian invasion that brought the political and religious structures of ancient Judah crashing down, builds his prophecies around what he calls the ‘day of the Lord’.  John the Baptist would have liked Zephaniah.  Zephaniah sees clearly what’s wrong with Judah – its public servants are like roaring lions, its judges like scavenging wolves, its priests have profaned the holiness of the Temple and think they’re above the Law.  Israel is going to get its come-uppance from God because the poor have been denied a fair go and the powerless have been abandoned.  It’s pretty strong stuff.  For Zephaniah the ‘day of the Lord’ is a day you’d rather not turn up for work on, a day on which self-serving elites and hypocritical religious leaders get what’s coming to them with a fair bit of collateral damage which Zephaniah describes in fairly vague terms: God’s indignation is going to be dumped on you, God’s anger is going to be like a fire that burns up not just Judah but the whole earth.  And then, says Zephaniah, you won’t be quite so cocky.  Mercifully, the lectionary writers decided we didn’t need to hear all that today. 

But then in verse 14, where we started, the mood abruptly changes.  After three chapters of giving us a right going over, Zephaniah says, ‘Rejoice!’.  Not, please notice, rejoice because, ‘oh, I was wrong about that, I just got another communiquĂ© from God and now he says he isn’t going to do it’.  Not, ‘well that was just what was going to happen if you didn’t listen to me, but fantastic because you did listen and now it’s all good’.  But rejoice because – ‘Guess what?  You’re about to get overwhelmed by God’s holiness and God’s righteous anger, and all your rottenness is going to get blown away but the skerrick of goodness that’s left – the poor and oppressed – are going to be my humble and holy people’.  The image Zephaniah gives us is an image of a putrid wound being cauterised: ‘Rejoice, because it’s going to hurt like heck, but the burning is going to leave only healthy flesh’.

And this radical surgery, Zephaniah tells us, is going to bring us back from the brink of the disaster of our own making.  The very people now dismissed as a waste of space are going to be given dignity and honour, national shame is going to be transformed into a good reputation.  It’s a vision of salvation, a vision of the good life that’s got to do not just with worshipping God and coming to church every week but about practical, concrete and everyday issues of social equity – salvation not as the individual practice of piety but the collective practice of justice towards the poor, the mentally ill, the asylum seeker, towards indigenous peoples, towards the earth itself as the visible sign of God’s goodness.  It’s a vision of the good life that actually leaves none of us unscathed, that when you think about it indicts all of us by challenging our priorities, the way we live, and whether we put our money where our mouths are.  To be honest, we can’t assume that the rottenness to be burned away is just the politicians or the clergy or the money market traders – we know that selfishness and humility, hypocrisy and generosity compete every day within our own hearts, and what needs to be burned away is part of how we ourselves live.

But when God’s judgement is finished with us, Zephaniah says, ‘Rejoice! Because God himself will be with you and he will renew you with his love’.  That’s verse 17, and the remarkable thing about it is that the Hebrew word, haras, that our Bible translates as ‘renew’ actually means to make quiet, or still, to give rest.  The Hebrew verb has the connotation of a baby at rest, fed and sated, lying safe and loved on its mother’s breast – as in psalm 131 (v2, NASB) ‘I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against its mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me’.  Right at the end of his gloomy and threatening warning that ignoring the demands of justice is a recipe for disaster, Zephaniah gives us this image of God as a mother who cradles and comforts us – whether we have been among the haves or the have-nots, whether we have been among the powerful of this world or the powerless, the righteous or the self-serving.  God, according to Zephaniah’s vision, works redemptively to bring both sides of our divided world and our divided selves together, making us whole and at peace within God’s own self.

‘Rejoice!’, John the Baptist tells us, ‘you brood of vipers’.  Rejoice because you’re being given the chance to repent.  That’s metanoia, the Greek word that means to do a 180 degree turn.  Rejoice because the one is coming into the world who is going expose your hypocrisy, the one who is going to baptise not just with water but with fire.  Even now, he’s getting ready to chop out of you all the rotten wood that’s sapping the life out of you, even now he’s getting ready to burn up every part of you that is unholy and self-serving.  Interestingly, in Luke’s gospel, John singles out two professions as examples of what he’s talking about – tax collectors and soldiers – administrative and military power – two professions and one theme – money.  ‘Don’t take advantage of other people, be content with your pay, with what you actually need, and recognise that your role is to serve and protect others’.  This is totally practical stuff – especially in Luke’s hands, the message of repentance John preaches is to a holiness that works itself out in practical actions, in balancing our own legitimate needs against the needs of others.  And like Zephaniah, John says ‘Rejoice! Because the one is coming whose holiness is experienced as white-hot judgement’.

I feel like I need to be careful in commenting on John the Baptist, because it’s clear that his message, though similar to that of Jesus, is not exactly the same.  Towards the end of his own life John sends messengers to Jesus that suggest he is in an agony of doubt: ‘Are you the one, or should we expect somebody else?’ (Lk 7.20) Jesus doesn’t seem to be bringing the winnowing fork, the axe or the fire.  Jesus is only fulfilling half of what John says the mighty one coming would do: he's baptising with the Holy Spirit and gathering people for healing, good news, and blessing, but the fire to destroy the wicked is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Jesus is revealing the profoundly transformative practice of forgiveness which extends, ultimately, even to those who nail him to the cross.  Jesus accepts sinful, morally compromised and divided human beings on their own terms and in their own homes, but in so doing, issues an invitation that’s in profound continuity with the one John himself issued - an invitation to repentance and conversion.

John apparently never gets to hear the full message, but he isn’t wrong.  Jesus practice of forgiveness and compassionate acceptance is every bit as challenging and scary as John predicted.  Jesus radical inclusiveness exposes our practice of setting up boundaries.  Jesus’ healing ministry exposes our vindictiveness, Jesus’ table hospitality exposes our lack of generosity, Jesus’ uncompromising practice of forgiveness exposes our hard-heartedness.  When we really think about it, it’s the Full Monty: the winnowing fork, axe and fire rolled into one.  The ‘day of the Lord’ happens with 100% certainty just as soon as we are prepared to take the risk of actually opening our lives up to the judgement of Jesus’ totally unreasonable practice of forgiveness.

So rejoice – you brood of vipers -12 sleeps to go.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Advent 2C

What is it, I wonder, about ears?  Like generations of little boys before me, and no doubt generations to follow, I grew up wondering why mine in particular needed so much attention at bath-time.  Hands and faces, I could understand.  I was under no illusions as to how dirty I was in that department after a hard afternoon’s playing with Robbie Gamble.  Even feet.  But why ears?  One of my most memorable childhood experiences is having my ears cauliflowered with a wet washer as part of the whole routine of getting ready for church on a Sunday morning.  Short back and sides, Brylcream and red ears.  Very attractive.

Even back then, of course, the link between inner and outer cleanliness was well-known.  “Clean hands, pure heart”, was one of my Dad’s favourite expressions.  I could understand that readily enough.  The dirtier my hands were the more likely it was I’d been up to something I shouldn’t have been.  In our house we had a vigorous approach towards purity of heart, mostly involving scouring the hands and fingernails of small boys with a scrubbing brush.

Dad, no doubt, would have approved of the prophet Malachi.  The name means ‘messenger’, the same Hebrew word we translate as ‘angel’.  Last week, our readings from the Bible swung off the charts into the distant future and the consummation of all things in Christ at the end of history.  This week we head backwards, three or four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and the time-frame gets shorter.  The one is coming, God’s angel informs us, for whom you need to be squeaky clean. 

I sometimes wonder whether we might not have overdone the Christmas message of peace and goodwill.  Whether or not we might be doing ourselves and others a disservice by so emphasizing the sweetness of the baby lying in the manger, the general agreeableness of wise men and shepherds and animals standing around in adoration, and the underlying message that despite the mess we’ve made of the world so far God loves human beings so much he just can’t live without us.  German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented how odd he found it that Christians every year celebrate Christmas with a sort of sentimental nostalgia, as though the idea of God coming into the world was just nice – and that we no longer seem to experience the shiver of fear that we should.  Bonhoeffer thought we had become so accustomed to appropriating just the most pleasant and comforting aspects of the story that we forget how truly terrifying it is to have God burst into our world and lay claim to us.  That God’s coming into the world is dangerous because – as Bonhoeffer put it – “God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in the world and also in us.  Only by judging us, can God cleanse and sanctify us.  That’s what it means for God to come to us with grace and love”.

It’s actually easy enough to acknowledge this, I think, on a global scale – on the scale of international affairs and big political issues.  It’s easy enough to acknowledge how much of our collective life is unredeemed and in need of challenge and transformation.  Just last week’s big stories – as a rusted-on Labor voter of course it wasn’t too hard to watch the implosion of the Australian Liberal Party over differences of opinion about climate change  – but what does it say about our collective life that the major political parties  - both of them – worry more about jockeying for position and short-term political advantage than about taking the long view of what decisions might need to be taken in the interests of generations who haven’t even been born yet, the long view of putting the needs of the earth itself ahead of the short-term interests of big business?  And also last week – overshadowed by the Liberal Party’s woes but maybe even more somber and cynical – the announcement by President Obama of a troop surge in Afghanistan for the express purpose of extricating himself from a war the American people are sick of, begun nine years ago for reasons largely forgotten.  The logic of a troop surge – as we already know from Iraq – is that it covers the confusion and moral recriminations of withdrawal by creating some appalling short-term statistics.  On the level of global issues it’s not actually so hard for us to recognise, for example, that what leads to peace in our world is not military strategy but for us to practice peace, forgiveness, compassion and generosity.

Advent is a time when, as Christians, we need particularly to speak of peace, and we need to be clear about the reasons for its absence.  But we also need to distinguish between true and false notions of peace.  In our haste to get to the nativity scene we find familiar and comforting, to take our place around the manger contemplating the sweetness and innocence of God with us – we ignore at our peril the uncomfortable Advent texts that speak to us of ‘refining fire’, ‘fuller’s soap’ and ‘rough places made smooth’.

The peace of the Incarnation is not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but shalom – that wonderful Hebrew word that speaks of fullness of life and wholeness and flourishing for those to whom it is denied.  The peace of the Incarnation is the challenge for us to practice shalom towards those who are excluded, towards men and women and children fleeing conflicts in which we ourselves have been engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the challenge for us to practice generosity and justice towards asylum seekers.  The challenge for us to work with Aboriginal people as equal partners to reduce the credibility gaps of life expectancy, housing, health and education.  The challenge for us to recognise that effective action on climate change of course means accepting the cost and the restriction on our own consumption and lifestyles.  God’s peace is abrasive, necessarily so, like the gritty grey cakes of Tru-Sol soap Mum used to use on my hands and knees - fuller’s soap, the soap used by the drycleaners of the ancient world was a harsh chemical peel that burned away the sweat and grime of living in the real world.  Refiner’s fire removes impurities in precious metals by searing temperatures that simply strip away anything that’s less chemically stable than gold or silver.  These aren’t comfortable images.  God’s drawing near to us confronts us with the certainty that, before we will be fit to withstand the holiness of God, all that is unholy and vindictive and cynical in us needs to be destroyed.

As I said, it’s easy enough to acknowledge this on the global scale of international affairs and politics, and the public life of our own nation that’s largely conducted at some rarified level over our heads.  It gets more personal and more difficult, however, when we start to ask ourselves what in our own life  has become ossified and self-serving, how much in our own life is rusted on or encrusted with comfortable habit.  And we can probably all make ourselves feel a little uncomfortable by thinking about the moral short-cuts we take and the ways we insulate ourselves in order not to notice the needs of others, in order to justify giving a little less than we should of ourselves, of our time and our money, or our tendency to notice more what other people should be doing for us, than what we should be doing for others.  We’re surely all aware that the true practice of religion is not measured by how diligently we say our prayers or read the Bible or attend church, but by how diligently we pay attention to and how much we go out of our way to respond to the needs of others.  It’s not even so difficult for us to recognise, I think, how much of our own personal life, our priorities and our relationships with those around us is called into question by the harsh words of the prophet who announces God’s coming into the world.  Get out the Tru-Sol, it’s time for some serious self-examination. Advent is a good time to start a diary, to write lists of what we know all too well has got to be softened and dissolved so that our lives can be translucent with God’s radiance.

I actually think the very hardest exercise in repentance that the prophet Malachi challenges us with is to think what needs to be burned away or destroyed in our life together as a church.  Church, after all, is where we come to worship, to renew our contact with God and with our brothers and sisters in faith.  The ways in which we live together as a people of faith, most especially the ways in which we live as a parish, grow out of our deepest understanding of what our lives mean – and it’s hardest of all, I think, to ask ourselves what needs to be broken, what needs to be burned away or scrubbed to within an inch of its life in our own parish.  Are there ways in which our parish life has grown to be an insiders’ club?  Are visitors made to feel welcome, as though we are interested in their lives, or do they feel as though they have intruded on a private family gathering?  Are we more concerned with tradition, with the right hymns and the right Anglican liturgy and less concerned with how we reach out to the community in which we live?  Are we more concerned with what church does for us, with how church affirms our own values, and less concerned with how we do church together in a way that is a blessing to others?  Why do we come here?  For ourselves, or for others?

Advent challenges us at this most basic and most intrusive level.  If, by the second week of Advent, you’re not feeling this, it’s possible you’re not paying attention.  Are we awake yet?  Are we ready?  Only 19 sleeps to go!  Quick!  What’s most important?


Friday, November 27, 2009

Advent 1

The story is told of Abraham Lincoln, during the darkest days of the Civil War, when one of his political opponents demanded he commit troops to a particular action.  ‘God is on our side, Mr President’, the man told him.  ‘We can’t fail’.  To which Lincoln replied, ‘Sir, I’ve never been concerned with whether or not God is on our side.  God is always on the side of holiness.  My great concern is whether in the light of history we will be shown to have been on God’s side’.

Today as Christians we begin a New Year of the Lord, a new Anno Domini on the Church calendar that works on a different time frame from the rest of the world, the time frame of salvation history, God’s time.  The readings from the Bible swing wildly back and forward from the end of all things to the hope of new beginnings, the hope that this year will belong to God, that it will reveal God’s presence in history and in our own lives.  We have entered Advent time, the time of waiting for God’s purposes to be revealed, the time of waiting for justice, of waiting for God’s promises to take on human flesh and blood, the time of waiting with held breath for Mary’s ‘yes’ which allows the Word of God to take root and grow in time and history; our own ‘yes’ that God’s purposes and promises may gestate and come to maturity in the world around us.

Today we pinch ourselves awake.  Have we got too comfortable?  Have we fallen asleep through the long countdown of Sundays after Pentecost, the so-called ordinary Sundays of teaching and preaching, miracles and meals and confrontations on the fateful journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.   Has church become routine, a spacer to keep the weeks from sliding into each other, a spiritual vitamin pill, an hour a week’s break from reality, a gossip with all-too-familiar friends?  Zen master Dogen used to teach his disciples that the correct frame of mind to cultivate is that of the instant between sliding off the back of a horse and hitting the ground.  No time to prepare.  No time to change your mind.  No time even to think. Just be ready ... ‘thump’ .... Advent is the instant in which your world changes – are you ready? ... ‘thump’.  Hope so.

Today’s readings present us with a bewildering mix of images.  The fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple that for righteous Jews was the centre of God’s presence in the world.  Is it the end of all things or the beginning?  What do we make of echoes of Luke’s apocalypse in the great events of our own time?  The signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, the distress of nations confused by rising global temperatures and sea levels.  The heady mix of anxiety and over-reaction, denial and head-in-the-sand politicking.  Like every generation before us, we see the great events of our own time mirrored in these ominous-sounding lines.   Advent is the sound of gears grating, of out-of synch calendars readjusting.  Hold the Christmas cards and the fake Santas, don’t break out the tinsel too soon.  Advent reminds us that all time belongs to God, that human history with its stress and violence is critiqued by eternity, that salvation history comes to its conclusion in and through the appalling and heartbreaking strife of human competitiveness, conflict and over-consumption.

And Advent says, ‘are you awake yet?  Look – history itself is pregnant with the power and the purposes of God.  Just look at the contradictions in the world around you, look at the contradiction between the glossy advertisements for fashion and electronic gadgets and overseas travel - and the reality of children in our own wealthy country going to school without breakfast because dad lost his job in the economic crisis, children in remote communities growing up without the prospect of ever going to school, ever getting a job or ever escaping the squalid environment of the town camps.  The escapist fantasy of overconsumption for the comfortable middle-class versus the escapist reality of alcohol abuse and glue-sniffing for the desperate poor in the next town or the next street.  Look at the contradiction of values laid bare when wealthy developed nations like our own invest vast resources in making sure the poor of the world never even get here to make a claim on our underdeveloped compassion.  Look at the contradiction between God’s promises and the reality of the world we live in, the contradiction between God’s promises and the hard-hearted way we actually live.  All time belongs to God, yet most of the time you’d be hard pressed to see any sign of it.

Yet Advent says, ‘look, time itself is ripe to bursting, ready to split apart and reveal the power and justice of God’.  Advent critiques the non-arguments of the climate-change deniers and the self-serving arguments of the do-nothing-until-the-rest-of-the-world-does brigade.  Advent makes the claim that the demands of justice can’t be put off, and the even more startling claim that the signs of God’s breaking into human history are all around us if we care to open our eyes.

Look at the fig tree, Jesus tells his disciples, and learn its lesson.  Learn to recognise the signs of renewal and hope.  A few weeks ago I read the story of two primary school children living in Victoria, in the area destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires last February, who have begun to photograph the bush around them as the blackened stumps burst into green flame.  Their work is being published as a calendar of hope.  In the same way the prophet Jeremiah, writing in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the holocaust of the Babylonian invasion in 587BC says, in this wasteland, in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are empty and desolate you will once again hear the sound of laughter, and songs of thanksgiving.  The blasted stump will sprout again, the green shoots of irrepressible new life will reveal God’s promises and God’s good purposes.  As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it succinctly when he says that as Christians, we are prisoners of hope.  We are prisoners of the future, oriented towards God’s future and the justice God promises.  There is no other Christian way to live.  To be Christian is to notice the dissonance between what is, and what God promises, and to proclaim that God gets the last word.

But Advent starts with a warning.  Don’t get sucked in, don’t go with the festive season flow, don’t over-indulge or you’ll miss the good bit.  Advent calls us back to live in the in-between times, with integrity, clarity, compassion and to substitute true worship for idolatry.  Jesus tells us, “be on your guard, in case your spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares”.  It’s not just a case of avoiding the office Christmas party or not overdoing the rum in the Christmas pudding.  These words from St Luke’s Gospel remind us of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Gethsemane, the night he woke his disciples and pleaded with them to pray not to be overcome with inertia.  It’s one of the strongest and most startling images in the Gospel, the image of the great day that catches you unexpectedly, that suddenly closes on you like a trap while you were distracted by the tinsel and the fairy lights.  It’s not just a risk for those men and women who followed Jesus in his earthly ministry, it’s a danger for us, if we pay more attention to the agendas and the enticements of our own culture than to the signs of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

At the beginning of Advent, the beginning of a new year, we are shaken awake with a warning.  Watch your step, because there are traps!  In fact there are lots of different traps in our culture but they have one thing in common, which is to distract us from what is important, to turn our attention from the core of our own identity.  Trapped in the superficial and failing to attend to what is truly urgent, we find ourselves trapped in opposition to justice and the reign of God.  The gospel warns us not to be bloated with indulgence - again, it’s not just about the plum pud, it’s about filling ourselves up with distractions and failing to be filled with the Holy One of God; about filling ourselves up with more stuff than we need while others lack the bare necessities of life; about filling ourselves up with details and plans and busyness, and remaining empty, hungry and thirsty for the justice and mercy of God.  Hollow out some empty space in your life, make space for others, and make space for God’s Word to grow in you.

Advent sends us back to the beginning as disciples, back to the apprenticeship of our faith.  Are we ready to begin?  Are we ready to learn how to listen, how to be receptive to new ideas, to acquire new habits of hospitality and generosity?  It is time to re-commit ourselves to the discipline of discipleship, to make a new year’s resolution to put aside timidity and luke-warmness, to put aside self-serving versions of our faith that claim God as being on our side, and to decide that, this year, and in the light of history, we will be found to be on the side of God.


Reign of Christ

One of the most significant circumstances of a person’s life is what country you are a citizen of.  If “home”, according to the famous definition, is “the place where when you go there they can’t throw you out”, then that’s even more true of the country you call home.  Citizenship gives you both rights and obligations, the protection of a legal code, a certain basic set of entitlements – and clearly your life chances are hugely affected by which country you have the citizenship of.  Being an Australian citizen – whether by accident of birth, or by deliberate choice – brings with it all the advantages of being at home in a country with a stable system of government, a high standard of living, good basic medical care and education.  A country where freedom of movement and freedom of speech are taken for granted, where federal, state and local government provide a huge range of services to protect our health and well-being.  Some of us, of course, have dual citizenship – we may be at home in more than one country and so we have different rights and obligations in each.  Interestingly, until 2002, Australian citizenship was held to be incompatible with the adoption of citizenship anywhere else – Rupert Murdoch, for example, had to relinquish his Australian citizenship in order to further his business interests as an American.  Citizenship affects every aspect of our lives, imposing responsibilities and obligations as well as conferring entitlements – for example we have to vote, to participate in some way in the public debate –being a good citizen means being informed, participating in community life, respecting the institutions of our country.  Being a good citizen also means reflecting on the decisions and the actions taken in your name. 

Today, the last Sunday of the Church year, however, as Christians we need to ask ourselves a fundamental question about citizenship.  Are we citizens of Australia, or citizens of the kingdom of God?  Can we hold dual citizenship?  Or does our citizenship of God’s kingdom call our national allegiance to account?

The very name we give to this Sunday – “Christ the King”, or “The reign of Christ” – tips us off that we are in explicitly political territory, the this-worldly arena of compromise and conflicting loyalties.  So does our reading from St John’s Gospel, which describes the confrontation between Jesus and the Roman procurator, Pilate, in the most politically charged language.  Here Pilate three times finds Jesus innocent, but passes the death sentence anyway in order to pacify the mob, mock the Jewish leaders and protect his own job.  John's gospel makes it crystal clear that the arrest of Jesus and the trial before Pilate were not religious but political crises.  Jesus' trial and execution by the Roman authorities are a clash between two kings and two kingdoms – and they pose an active challenge to us, two thousand years later.

Historian Jaroslav Pelikan points out what the obscure provincial governor Pilate himself, if only he could have known about it, might have found a maddening paradox – of all the famous Romans, none of them, not even Julius Caesar or Cleopatra’s ill-fated lover Marc Antony are as universally known and recognised as Pontius Pilate, whose name is read aloud every time Christians recite the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed – and who shares this distinction only with Mary, the mother of our Lord, and with Jesus himself.

According to Luke’s Gospel, the birth of Jesus is greeted in overtly political language by his mother, who exults that through him God would “bring down the tyrants from their thrones”.  In Mark’s Gospel, the very first words Jesus speaks are to announce that “the kingdom of God is at hand”.  In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus announces, “blessed are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is for you!”  In contemporary Aussie, the nearest equivalent might be for Jesus to say “blessed are you asylum seekers, because you’re the Australians of the future!”  Today’s reading takes us to Jesus’ trial and execution, and the consequences of this sort of political rabble-rousing are made utterly plain.  Jesus is dragged to the Roman governor's palace for three reasons, all of them political: "We found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King" (Luke 23:1–2). In short, he is being arrested as a political criminal.

Inside the praetorium, Pilate interrogates Jesus to find out what sort of threat, if any, he poses. “Well?”, he demands, “are you what they say?  Are you really the King of the Jews?” Jesus sort of explains, sort of evades the question: “my kingdom isn’t of this world”.  “So you are a king then?” – you can just about hear the scorn – but at the same time, Pilate is still probing.  Jesus is clearly a religious fruitcake, Palestine produces this sort with monotonous regularity.  Boring, no doubt – but is he dangerous?  “Yes”, says Jesus.  “You’re right”.  According to the Gospel-writer, Pilate does his best to treat Jesus as a harmless crank, roughing him up a bit and quietly letting him go, but the Jewish leaders have whipped up the crowd into such a frenzy that Pilate begins to fear for his job, even his life – and so gives in to their demands.  Modern Biblical scholars aren’t so sure - pointing out that Pilate was a ruthless, pragmatic Roman military leader who thought nothing of mass crucifixions to discourage peasant uprisings, and suggesting the Gospel writers find it convenient to let Pilate off the hook and blame Jesus death on the Jewish religious leaders.  In one sense, it hardly matters.  Jesus’ alternative vision of how life should be has come smack up against the brutal realities of the ancient patronage society, where maybe two thirds of the land and wealth are enjoyed by one percent of the population.

When Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, he doesn’t mean that it is just spiritual, he doesn’t mean it’s just about the life after this one, about heaven, not earth.  He means it challenges the legitimacy of the kingdoms of this world precisely because it offers an alternative vision of what this world should look like.  The Gospel account makes it perfectly plain that Jesus’ enemies understand this all too well.  If Jesus is a king, if the kingdom of God is the way Jesus describes it, then he is absolutely clashing head-on with Caesar as Lord.  The two kingdoms are incompatible.  The sort of Christianity that spiritualises that away is missing the point.  Jesus’ agenda really is dangerous and subversive.  Pilate is right to do away with him.

In its simplest terms, the kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world weren’t. If God was in charge, and not Rudd or Turnbull, not the Taliban or Al-Qaida, not even Barack Obama.   Absolutely nothing would be like it is now, every single aspect of life would be turned upside down.  Total disruption. If God was in charge, the economy wouldn’t work, for a start, because instead of an economy that guaranteed the best of everything for those who could afford it, we’d have one in which the basic needs of all people came first, in which the welfare of all and the flourishing of the planet itself came first.  Instead of normal war and business-as-usual ethnic cleansing we’d be plagued with endless peace-making, pointless outbreaks of people being able to see one another’s point of view, mercy instead of revenge, generosity instead of greed, asylum seekers would be greeted with compassion and hospitality instead of being shunted out of sight and locked up in an Indonesian prison, public housing and support for the most vulnerable would come ahead of tax breaks for the wealthy, care for the environment would come ahead of playing party politics.  The Hebrew Bible has a marvellous word for this subversive view of reality, shalom, or human well-being.

The most subversive, most provocative political act you can carry out, is to pray the prayer that Jesus taught his followers: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.  People who pray this prayer, and who live the same way they pray, have an agenda that says the way things are is not how they should be.  An agenda that says: “God sees things differently, and so do I.  I beg to differ.”

It’s a dangerous prayer – nothing short of an oath of allegiance for prospective immigrants to the kingdom of God.  And if you pray it you’re claiming citizenship of a kingdom that critiques all the other affiliations and loyalties of your life.  Yes, you can hold dual citizenship, in fact, citizenship of God’s kingdom makes you a better citizen of Australia because, every now and then a good citizen needs to say, very clearly, “I beg to differ”.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pentecost 24

A young woman who was heavily pregnant with her first child once confided in me how well everything was going.  She said ‘I’ve been nauseous for the last six months, my back aches, I’ve got sweating and hot flushes and strange cravings’.  Really strange cravings – nothing as normal as chocolate or Chinese food at 10pm, what she wanted to eat was rubber.  She told me she managed to restrain herself from actually taking a nibble, but used to surreptitiously sniff the rubber thongs in aisle 13 at the local supermarket.  She’d asked her doctor what it all meant, and he said to her, ‘it means everything is just fine.  It means everything is going just as it should.’

When Jesus uses the metaphor of birth pangs for the signs of the times in our Gospel reading this morning, it makes sense.  Wars, rumours of wars, and terror.  Earthquakes, famines, bushfires and mudslides and tsunamis.  Wild political theories, weird religious cults.  Alarm over climate change.  Financial and economic meltdown.  It might look like everything is falling to bits, it might look like the end of the world but believe it or not this is normal.  I rather like the translation of Eugene Peterson in his Bible paraphrase, “The Message” – ‘this is routine history’. 

I remember when I first became a Christian - not as a child or a teenager but as a young adult in the early 80s and I started really reading the Bible and I came across this passage in Mark’s Gospel.  It was just a bit scary – I thought to myself, ‘but this is exactly what’s happening right now’.  And over the years I began to realise that every generation in history has seen their own time mirrored in these verses.  Which just goes to show that what we experience as threatening and ominous really is at some level, ‘routine history’.  And of course I came to realise – as no doubt you have also noticed – how often throughout history manipulative and unscrupulous so-called Christian leaders have exploited the anxiety of the times by proclaiming ‘this is it’ – ‘this time the end really is nigh’.

‘No’, Jesus assures us.  These things are just signs that you are living in routine history, where human goodness and evil struggle against each other, where natural events take a terrible toll, where you need courage and compassion to live your life with optimism and integrity.  Theologian Karl Rahner makes a useful distinction between real Christian eschatology – a word that means thinking about the goal of history and our own personal existence – real eschatology and fake, sensationalist predictions of the so-called end-times.  Lurid predictions of the future, he points out, don’t actually have any real connection with our present.  They just leave us feeling vaguely unsettled.  Real eschatology affirms that our lives have a direction and a purpose – we don’t just go round and round in an endless cycle of days and weeks and years but are drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of our true identity – real eschatology is concerned with how the final fulfilment of the world and of our own selves can transform us in the here and now.  Rahner points out – as Jesus also does – that the end of all things is necessarily hidden, but assures us that what is hidden from us is precisely what is revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  In other words the end of all things is exactly the fulfilment that is promised in the here and now, in which we are already present to God in Christ.

That doesn’t make routine history any less dramatic or frightening when you are living in the middle of it.  In our wealthy country we sometimes feel insulated from the things we read about in the newspapers or see on the TV news.  Human nature being what it is, it’s easy to look at the signs of economic prosperity, public buildings, freeways, fast electric trains, brightly-lit shopping centres, well-equipped hospitals – and see in all that a guarantee of security, even a sign of God’s blessing.  But we need to notice that Jesus’ unsettling words in today’s Gospel reading are actually a caution against this kind of thinking.  Just before this, at the end of chapter 12, the disciples have been oohing and ah-ing at the Temple.  Remember that these men and women were from Galilee, a rural backwater, and that most people in ancient societies never travelled far from home.  According to Mark’s version of events this is the one and only time Jesus and his disciples ever travelled to Jerusalem, for the great Passover in which the city filled with gawking tourists and country bumpkins alike.  The second temple, begun back in the sixth century before Jesus and splendidly completed by King Herod the Great was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  The disciples are understandably awe-struck by this symbol of religious and cultural magnificence – and Jesus says to them, ‘you think this is something?  It’s all going to come tumbling down’. And of course we know that about 37 years later, following an ill-judged uprising, the Temple was in fact razed to the ground by the Roman armies of the Emperor Vespasian.  I think Jesus is cautioning us against taking ourselves too seriously.  Don’t put your trust in share markets or building funds because they will collapse.  Don’t put your trust in charismatic religious leaders because they like the sound of their own voices a bit too much.  Don’t get seduced by grand churches or cathedrals, because their stained glass windows are useless unless they succeed in pointing you to a reality beyond themselves.

And then Jesus starts talking a bit of reality to the disciples.  Remember, this is the last week of his life.  Even now, they don’t get it.  In a week’s time they are going to be running scared, scattered and shattered by the knowledge of their own failure, wondering whether their faith in Jesus was ever anything more than a mirage.  And Jesus needs to give them some words of comfort ahead of time, some words to strengthen and give them hope when they remember them in the dark days ahead.  And what are his words of comfort?  ‘Oh, and you yourselves – you’re going to be beaten up and arrested and put on trial.  There will be betrayal and cowardice and you will be reviled by just about everybody.  But don’t worry!’

Specifically, in the context of Mark’s Gospel written for a Christian community living through the war years of 64-70 AD, or perhaps just after, these words seem to reflect the reality of the terror of those years.  Like the rest of the Jewish population, it seems Christians faced the choice between fleeing the reprisals of the Roman armies or joining a futile resistance.  According to the ancient historian, Eusebius, most Christians fled but perhaps some joined the revolt against the Romans, sure that this was how they could be most faithful to Jesus’ message of liberation and the incoming reign of God.  Later again, Christians would be specifically targeted in the pogroms of the Emperor Nero and around 90 AD would come the final break between Christianity and Judaism. 

Jesus knew there were dark days up ahead for his followers.  Yet he also knew what we now know – that in the days and weeks after his own death his disciples would experience the life-changing reality of his resurrection life.  We know this for sure, because we ourselves are the evidence that they were transformed from a frightened and bewildered group of individuals caught up in events beyond their control, into a powerful and coherent witness of hope.

The gospels are very clear that this group of men and women were not very special.  We know they had difficulty hearing what Jesus was trying to tell them.  We know they were self-centred and afraid to commit themselves to Jesus’ costly way of love – just like us.  We know that Jesus’ prediction of suffering and strife came true for most of them.  But the promise of our own final transformation is also guaranteed in this little group of frightened country bumpkins who did listen, and who were faithful, who experienced the truth of the resurrection and who changed the world.

Because you and I are also disciples, and we live in our own time of challenge and suffering.  These things, as Jesus assures us, are not the end but they are the beginning.  The beginning of the gospel, the beginning of the salvation of the whole world, the beginning of the inbreaking of the reign of God, the beginning of the church.  And beginnings do involve pain, as any woman who has ever been in labour will be glad to affirm.  But beginnings are also alive with hope and possibility. 

Faithfulness to the gospel does not insulate us from suffering, but draws us deeper into the heart of it.  In every age there is evil to be confronted and goodness to be discerned and encouraged.  In every age there is catastrophe to be faced with courage, and joy to be celebrated.  In our own lives there is both heartache and blessing.

Jesus’ promise is not that we will be kept safe from the tribulations of routine history, or of our own lives, nor that we will be carried through it so it doesn’t really affect us, but that we will be transformed by it.  I remember former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser getting into trouble – and in fact becoming famous for the snobby-sounding utterance “life wasn’t meant to be easy”.  It’s half-true, and that’s the problem.  But as he explained years later, he had been quoting a line from the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: "Life wasn't meant to be easy, my child, but take courage: it can be delightful!"  It’s precisely in the struggle to be people of both realism and hope that we experience grace, and that we are transformed into who God intends us to be.  It’s the same promise that we hear in Revelation, chapter 21: ”And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (21:3-4)

My friend, who eventually had a beautiful baby boy after an epic 24 hour labour, would surely agree.




Saturday, November 07, 2009

Pentecost 23

Seventy one years ago tonight was the night that changed the world, the night whose ugly consequences are still unfolding in the world we live in, the night of broken glass, Kristallnacht.  The night on which the Nazi regime in Germany, supremely confident of its power, unleashed a wave of vicious riots against its own Jewish population that by morning had seen the destruction of 267 synagogues, 7,500 Jewish businesses, untold numbers of Jewish homes, hospitals and schools, and left 91 Jewish people dead.  For years, Nazi propaganda had systematically demonised and blamed Jews for the problems faced by ordinary Germans – hyperinflation, unemployment, loss of confidence – the consequences of the humiliating terms laid down at Versailles.  Kristallnacht translated German insecurity into Jewish terror.

It’s not just a German phenomenon.  Human beings react to insecurity by trying to see the world in black and white categories.  When we are faced with situations beyond our control, whether financial insecurity, war or climate change, human beings look for scapegoats, we project the blame for fearful situations onto those who are different from us, whose language or religion are different from ours.  Kristallnacht paints in stark and fearful terms the dilemma faced by human beings who feel powerless in a world of instability and shifting power – how do you feel safe?

Over recent months we’ve seen an echo of this in our own, largely tolerant, country - as the nightly news brings us images of asylum-seekers arriving on Ashmore reef or intercepted by military vessels further north in the Indonesian Archipelago.  It exposes a deep division in our national psyche, a raw nerve we thought had long since healed over.  How welcoming are we?  Are we secure enough to react with compassion to the obvious distress and the basic human need of families, men and women and children forced away from their homes by conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Sri Lanka to soften our hearts? Or will we react defensively, fearful for our economic well-being, our national security?  A caller on talk-back radio last week told us he had a sure solution for the problem of asylum-seekers aboard the Oceanic Viking refusing to leave the vessel and go to the detention centre the Indonesian authorities have prepared for them.  ‘Just tow them out to sea and sink the vessel’, he told the radio announcer.  ‘Then they’ll get off for sure’.  Global conflict, terrorism, global financial crisis, global climate change.  In a world where tens of millions of people are displaced by events beyond their control, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of desperate people see our own country as a safe refuge, how do we ourselves feel safe?

The story of Ruth and Naomi is perhaps a good reminder.  Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, is a refugee twice over.  With her husband, Elimelech, she has fled her home in Bethlehem, a town whose name, ironically enough, means ‘house of bread’, to escape a fearful famine.  Elimelech and Naomi find refuge in Moab, again ironically enough, as Moab was a feared enemy-state, one of the ‘ axis of evil’ states that the invading armies of Israel believed God had ordered them to destroy.  Ten years later, on the deaths of her husband and her two sons, Naomi is forced out of her home yet again.  She wants to change her name from Naomi, which means, ‘pleasant’, to Mara, which means ‘bitter’.  Fair enough, and to make matters worse her clingy daughter-in-law Ruth, also newly-widowed, refuses to abandon her.  It’s hard to imagine two more fragile individuals – the middle-aged Naomi returning to her home country without a husband, and Ruth the feared Moabite, venturing into a foreign country without friends, family or prospects.

Naomi, fortunately, is nothing if not wily.  The younger woman can work, the older one knows the ropes.  She knows, for example, that family obligation is the glue that holds her community together, even for a widow who traditionally was regarded as little more than a liability.  And she hatches a plan.  Firstly, Ruth must go into the barley harvest to glean the stray heads dropped by the young men cutting the standing grain and gathering it together.  This isn’t particularly presumptuous, in ancient societies it was a sort of social safety net, more or less the equivalent of the dole.  In fact the Law of Moses commanded it, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 9 says when you harvest your field you are not to reap to the very edge or gather in all the loose grain, you have to leave some for the poor and the alien – and then in verse 10 comes the reason why: because I am the Lord your God.  The implication is clear as crystal – when you were aliens in Egypt God had compassion on you.  So what do you reckon you should be doing?

So Ruth goes gleaning in the field of Boaz, who Naomi tells her is a relative, and so has an obligation to her.  Here’s something else to notice – Ruth, the foreigner, the enemy alien, actually has a tenuous status in this strange foreign land because she belongs to Naomi.  And she does pretty well because the righteous Boaz not only respects her right to glean but goes further than the Law of Moses demands, telling his workers to deliberately leave some standing grain for her.

But Naomi has an even more cunning plan which, for all the euphemisms and indirect hints, we recognise as nothing less than the instruction to Ruth to offer herself to Boaz on the threshing floor, traditionally a symbol of fertility and a scene of merrymaking and high jinks when the harvest had been brought in.  And it might have been an OK plan except for the integrity of Ruth, and the compassionate integrity of Boaz.  And perhaps the plan of God.

I have to say, I can’t understand the writers of the lectionary who unfailingly leave out all the most exciting bits.  Suffice it to say, in ancient Israel feet are a euphemism for something else – but far from uncovering the feet of Boaz, Ruth reveals her growing understanding of the local customs by delicately suggesting to Boaz that she is available for marriage and inviting him, as her nearest kinsman, to ‘spread his cloak over her’, in other words, to take responsibility for her.  Boaz, as she finds out a few moments later, is actually not her nearest kinsman – Naomi has gilded the lily a bit on that one too – not the relative who, according to the Law of Moses, was sort of obliged to marry the dead man’s widow to ensure the continuation of his lineage.  But the story ends well because Boaz – perhaps influenced just a bit by the fact that Ruth is rather a smasher, again goes one better than the Law of Moses demands, out-manoeuvring the actual next-of-kin in order to marry Ruth, thus ensuring that the great King David would have as a great-great grandmother – and Jesus a great-great-great ...great-great grandmother - a woman who for all time has been regarded as the epitome of courage and loyalty, even if she was a refugee Moabite who God had commanded his people to wipe out. 

So if it’s not ethnicity, or religion, or blood ties, what is the basis of our deepest obligations to one another?

Our Gospel story this morning shows Jesus, in the Temple during the last week of his life, giving us a clue what he thinks the answer to that question might be.  If you thought, when you heard this reading, I’d be telling you that Jesus thinks this widow putting her last 20 cents into the collection plate was a good idea and that you should do exactly the same thing, then you’re wrong because there’s absolutely no indication in the story that Jesus thinks it’s a good idea at all.  Before this lady comes along Jesus has been pointing to a whole bunch of priests, and maybe the odd bishop, dressed up in our long robes looking all holy, and he says to his disciples, ‘watch out for them, this lot exploits little old ladies’.  And when she puts her two little coins into the collection plate and he hears the little chink, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘see, that’s all she had to live on.  The bigwigs – not, in my own defence, just the clergy but in the context of ancient Israel also the professional classes and public servants, maybe merchant bankers thrown in for good measure as well - being socially respectable and outwardly pious doesn’t cost that lot anything at all really, but it’s the poor who suffer from what they preach. 

And when the disciples say, ‘yes, but look at this great church – after all, it’s going to take a fair bit to maintain it and every little helps’, Jesus tells them the Temple doesn’t matter – it’s all going to be rubble in a few years anyway.  Priests come and go – so they tell me – what matters is compassion.  What matters is that God’s gifts are meant for giving back to God – through acts of compassion and justice.  Jesus in this story is telling us that compassion out-trumps religion, that recognising and responding to human need is where God’s priority number one lies.

The point is that God’s perspective on kinship and social obligation is wider than ours, God’s perspective on what matters and who matters cuts right across every human institution.  God doesn’t recognise national boundaries – wouldn’t you think a people whose whole history was based on God’s remembering them when they were slaves in Egypt would have cottoned onto that?  God doesn’t recognise kinship boundaries that include some people and exclude others – wouldn’t you think a people who believed God had created all human beings in his own image would have understood that?  God doesn’t believe in religion when that religion is used as a way of saying that some of us are OK and loved by God and that others are wrong and dangerous and should be kept out.  Wouldn’t you think a people who believe God took on human DNA in Jesus would realise that all human life is holy?

Taking a God’s-eye view of the world we live in means putting compassion ahead of self-interest, ahead of national interest, and especially it means remembering the humanity of those whose difference and whose desperation makes them an object of fear.  It means, like Boaz, going one better than you have to in practising hospitality and welcome.  It means refusing to live in fear, even in a world of danger.  It means remembering that God’s blessings are for giving, never for keeping.  And it means finding your own security in the God who created you.